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December 6, 2001

Commitment to law clinic continues, administrators insist

The three administrators most involved in the controversy over Pitt’s Environmental Law Clinic replied vigorously this week to a Dec. 2 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story that questioned their commitment to the clinic.

In a point-by-point response published in the Post-Gazette yesterday, School of Law Dean David Herring disputed the story’s conclusion that Pitt has been “more equivocal” than other state-supported universities in defending environmental law clinic activities against attacks by industry and government.

At the Dec. 3 Senate Council meeting, Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and Provost James Maher called the Post-Gazette story “misleading” and “superficial,” and denied accusations that they caved in to pressure to silence the clinic.

Last summer, Pennsylvania legislators barred Pitt from spending tax money on the clinic, in retaliation for its work for opponents of timbering in the Allegheny National Forest. Pitt’s administration responded by billing the clinic monthly for administrative and overhead costs at a rate that could bankrupt the clinic in a little over a year, according to clinic director Thomas Buchele.

Buchele, Dean Herring and other law school faculty are working on a plan to transform the clinic into a separate, nonprofit organization that would be affiliated with — but no longer part of — the law school.

In his letter to the Post-Gazette, Herring wrote: “We are not ‘driving the clinic off campus,’ but are simply bringing our organizational structure in line with that at other public law schools.”

Currently, the dean wrote, Pitt is the only non-private university that houses a clinic that is free to pursue a wide range of environmental law cases. Other environmental law clinics that the Post-Gazette compared with Pitt’s are actually separate, nonprofit corporations affiliated with public universities (the clinics at Rutgers and the universities of Colorado and Michigan), housed at private schools (Tulane) or operating under state-imposed limitations that Pitt law faculty would not tolerate (the University of Maryland’s clinic), Herring wrote.

This week’s Senate Council discussion of the clinic controversy was initiated by psychology professor James Holland, who said he was surprised that Nordenberg failed to mention the Post-Gazette article in his regular report to the Council.

“I am kind of astounded,” Holland said, “that academic integrity at the University finds its main defense in a metropolitan newspaper.”

Nordenberg said his administration’s defense of the Environmental Law Clinic has taken place mainly behind the scenes. “Our approach from the outset,” the chancellor said, “has been one grounded in the belief that making this a public issue was not in anyone’s interest, including those who share our desire to make the clinic a strong part of the educational program here at the University.”

Holland retorted: “It would not have become a public issue if it had been handled properly. It only became a public issue because we seem to be buckling to outside interference in academic matters. That is why it’s a public issue. It’s not because the newspapers made it one, it’s because they are reporting what’s happening.”

Provost Maher said the clinic controversy has raised “important academic issues that we all care about. But when you pick your medium for discussion, you pick a style and a process that may or may not provide for the best and most illuminating discussion. I think the public media are a particularly poor forum for an academic discussion where the issues are at all complicated and subtle.”

Like Dean Herring, Maher argued that the University is only following the examples of other public universities in seeking to establish its Environmental Law Clinic as a separate, non-profit entity that will be insulated from legislative retribution.

“The chancellor and I have been bending over backward throughout the discussion [of the clinic’s future] to avoid taking over the prerogatives or the roles of the School of Law and its faculty,” Maher said.

In an interview, Herring said negotiations to spin off the clinic as a separate organization are coming along, but slowly. “In principle, we know where we want to go,” he said. “But as far as the details of the financial arrangements, the physical space, that stuff takes time to draw together. The plan is that the clinic office will be located outside the law school building, but as close to the school as possible” — ideally, a five- or 10-minute walk away, the dean said.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 8

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